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A Few of Our Biographies:

* Cleopatra

* Malcolm X

* Rasputin

* Albert Schweitzer

* Andrew Carnegie

* Bill Wilson ("Bill W.," founder of A.A.)


The Assassination of President Kennedy

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Pop Songs Immersed in History

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History and Biography Reading Suggestions (Hundreds of 'Em, by Category)

Heading For a Fall
By Bob Frost
West magazine, 1992
(Sunday magazine of the
San Jose Mercury News)


Sidebar:
A Short History of Skydiving and Parachutes


My favorite word for what happens if you experience parachute failure while falling to the earth at 120 miles per hour is "bounce." Synonyms include "crater," "eat dirt," and "buy the farm."

About 20 to 30 skydivers bounce every year in the United States, on average, although it's not really a bounce, of course, it's more of a crumple or thwack, depending on how they hit. Their legs might splinter like kindling and ram up into the abdominal cavity, their spinal column might transect, and their heart might explode.


These deaths occur out of several million annual parachute jumps in this country. Skydivers like to regard their sport as reasonably safe, statistically speaking - they point out that 75 to 100 people die in the U.S. each year from getting hit by lightning, and they announce, apparently in all seriousness, "It's the drive to the airport that worries me most."

Fatal accidents are analyzed in the sport's monthly magazines, Parachutist and Skydiving. When skydivers read these articles, they usually can see exactly where the screw-up was, and feel confident that they could never freeze up from "ground rush" and fail to take proper remedial action quickly enough, that they would be carrying an Automatic Activation Device that would pop open their parachute at 1,000 feet if for some reason they couldn't - i.e, that they could never bounce.

But the articles aren't always reassuring. "More than one month after it happened," reports Skydiving in the issue of September, 1991, "investigators of a fatal tandem parachuting accident still haven't found answers to several important questions." In other words, nobody has a clue why those poor suckers bounced.

The word "tandem" in the above paragraph is a reference to the newest big thing in parachuting: Experienced and well-trained skydivers strap themselves to absolute beginners, and they jump out of the plane together. I heard Paul Harvey talk about this with enthusiasm on KGO radio. This, I decided, was something I needed to try, and write about for West. My imperial need to find a good story trumped any worries about safety.

On a recent Thursday morning I showed up for a tandem jump at the Parachute Center in the town of Lodi, in the San Joaquin Valley, 100 miles northeast of San Jose. I had learned that the center has a good reputation for safety. If I liked the tandem jump, or didn't hate it too much, I planned to start lessons there on Saturday on how to jump alone out of an airplane with minimal risk of bouncing.

*

A few hours after my tandem ride I was back in my motel room, pacing back and forth, laughing, shouting, re-living every sweet second of the jump, including the moment when the airplane door opened, the gestalt changed radically, and I looked down at Planet Earth and almost puked. As I paced in my room, I would occasionally launch myself into a full belly-flop onto the double bed, as if I were leaping out of a plane, and jot exuberant phrases in my Reporter's Notebook: "The most amazing thing I've ever done. Unbelievable."

My tandem jump was fun and easy. Yes, I would indeed start training on Saturday morning, and, if all went according to plan, on Saturday afternoon at about 4 o'clock I would jump alone.

The next day, Friday, I drove back to the Parachute Center to watch the proceedings and get a better feel for who constituted the skydiving crowd.

*

The center is housed in a couple of old hangar buildings on 100 acres of grass and dirt. Half-a-dozen small and medium-sized planes are parked near the hangars. Surrounding the site are large, flat, hot fields where Gallo grows grapes. Skydivers refer to centers like this as "drop zones" or "DZs" - paratrooper terms that suggest the military origins of the sport (see sidebar). The U.S. today has about 300 DZs serving 30,000 to 40,000 regular jumpers along with the thousands of one-time tandem jumpers.

The main building is divided into several big rooms, with ceilings three stories high, ratty carpeting, a couple of wobbly desks, pictures of skydivers taped to the walls, and, in one corner, a TV, where you watch the scare-the-pants-off-you video before you do your tandem jump.

The guy in the video tells you that your tandem jump is "experimental" and that "you are part of the study" - it seems that the Federal Aviation Administration has only granted some sort of provisional license for tandem equipment. The video informs you that seven tandem pairs, out of 160,000 tandem jumps, have been killed in the United States since this activity started in earnest in the 1980s. The basic thrust of the video, and of the two-page waiver that you sign, is that you might bounce, and if you do, your heirs shouldn't even think about litigation.

The first person I saw when I walked into the main building was Jessica Ramey of Modesto, the most beautiful 14-year-old I have ever seen in my life. She was bald, from chemotherapy. Her eyes seemed to me to know everything knowable about life and death. She had just finished her second tandem jump, as a celebration of life, and liked it very much. But she was feeling tired, so she sat on a couch and closed her eyes. Meanwhile, several members of her family watched video of their own tandem jumps.

"I heard you screaming right there," said one of them.

"I was screaming," said Kori Steele, Jessica's aunt, "because I was falling out of an airplane to the ground."

"That'll do it," somebody said.

A tandem jump at the Parachute Center costs $100. Many jumpers pay $55 extra for a skyborne photographer to record their leap with video and still photos. The photographer has two cameras on his or her helmet.

By and by, Jessica Ramey and her family headed for home. I waved good-bye; she waved back, and was gone.

On the other side of the hangar, Alexey Korzuchin packed his main parachute and got ready to go up for his 410th skydive.

He's 43 and works as a senior software design engineer at KLA Instruments Corp. in San Jose. He's short, fit, and intense, with long black hair, a beard, and a Russian accent. He was born in China of Russian parents and moved to the U.S. when he was 10. He enlisted in the Army in 1967 and did a stint in Vietnam in '68 with Army Special Forces - the Green Berets. His Army service involved parachuting, but it was "all work," he said - "no fun at all." He went to work for KLA in 1987; a year later he realized that his love of his job was veering toward workaholism.

"I worked on one project for 60 hours a week for four months straight," Korzuchin said. "That's ridiculous. And I was going through a divorce at the same time." He started looking around for a serious, consuming, physical pastime, and rediscovered skydiving.

"I found that it diverted my attention," he said. "It released a lot of tension. The more I jumped the less tension I got. There's physical tension involved in the jump - when I'm in the air my muscles do a certain amount of flexing and contorting - but that goes right away."

He skydives every other weekend; each month he does perhaps 20 or 25 jumps. His office cubicle starts feeling "cramped" to him by about Wednesday if he didn't visit a drop zone the previous weekend. He's invested serious money in the sport - $2,500 for his parachute rig (including a main parachute, reserve, and container) and $200 to $400 per month to get on airplanes.

Alexey's primary focus in skydiving, which he shares with perhaps 75 percent of the sport's regular jumpers, is "relative work" ("RW"), also known as formation skydiving, wherein groups of four, eight, or more people exit planes, go into free falls, and for 50 or 60 seconds, before they open their chutes, link arms and perform configurations such as stars, diamonds, and dozens of others that can be very difficult to execute. "For me," said Korzuchin, "this is a sport. It's something that takes time and practice to get good at." He added, "I still get an adrenaline rush every time. Absolutely."

The adrenalin kick is not universal. Kris Gangi, a poised woman of 27 who works as an account executive for a mortgage banker in Modesto, says the adrenalin boost "goes away eventually. It's not scary after a while. People try this for the adrenaline and then they continue because it's a sport that takes practice." She has 330 jumps. "My mom thinks it's the coolest thing in the world for me to do," she said. "My dad thinks it's idiocy." Gangi's mom will receive, on her next birthday, the gift of a tandem jump at the Parachute Center. Her dad will be invited to watch.

Alexey Korzuchin has experienced one mid-air malfunction of his main parachute in his 409 jumps over four years. He followed standard procedure: He "cut away" the main canopy, letting it fly off to land by itself downwind. He pulled the ripcord on his reserve chute - "the moment of truth," he notes - and landed safely.

Skydivers say that some sort of main parachute problem is somewhat likely to occur in a person's first 500 or so jumps. It's often due to jumper error. It's something they train for; it's not looked upon as a very big deal. Bill Dause, 49, owner of the Parachute Center, compares it to a "panic stop on the freeway."

Dause has experienced "about 35" malfunctions of his main canopy in his 28-year jumping career. Most of them, he hastens to add, happened in the 1960s with old-fashioned equipment - since then, the reliability of gear has improved enormously, he says. It must also be noted that he's made 16,660 jumps. He's running neck-and-neck with one other active skydiver for the most parachute jumps in human history.

Dause is compact and fit and always in a hurry, whether he's talking on the phone to a prospective tandem jumper or dashing out to a plane. He brings to mind a man named Don Coryell, an NFL head coach in the 1970s and '80s, a wiry guy whose intensity on the sidelines was actually pretty scary (and who, it turns out, was a paratrooper during World War II). For Bill Dause, the thousands of jumps he's made have burned away every ounce of extraneous stuff from his body and soul; what's left is perfect skydiving essence, a pure crystalline focus on what he wants to do with his vocational life: skydive and operate a good DZ. He often jumps a dozen times a day. He insists he is not engaged in any sort of competition with "that fellow in New England" for the all-time jumping championship - he claims to not even know the guy's name. (It's Don Kellner and he lives in Pennsylvania.)

*

I spent part of Friday afternoon sitting in a lawn chair watching jumpers float down to make gentle touch-downs on the grass. Their canopies flapped in the hot breeze - billowy expanses of scarlet, gold, and silver, gorgeous against the blue sky.

The parachutists landed on their feet; they didn't topple over on their sides like paratroopers in World War II movies. And they landed exactly where they wanted to land - another contrast to war films. Modern parachutes are highly accurate. Good jumpers can drop to within a few feet of where they want to be, and experts can literally stop on a dime.

Alexey Korzuchin wandered over. We talked about his first "static-line" jump in 1988. I mentioned that I planned to start static-line training the next morning.

He looked at me. "Yeah? Well, it's scary."

Huh? Scary? To a former Green Beret? Had I missed something? The way I understood it was, you went up in an airplane, attached a line to the parachute on your back, jumped out, and, as you fell, the line - the static line, attached to the aircraft - popped open your parachute. The idea was, in the rush of events, you couldn't possibly screw up by forgetting to reach down and pull the cord. Static-line jumping sounded pretty easy to me. I figured I could zip right through the basics and then decide if I wanted to proceed with what I thought would be the definitely scary stuff: free fall. At the very least, with a static-line jump, I'd have enough material for a magazine piece, and I could feel I'd done my job.

"Yeah, that's what it is," said Alexey, referring to my description of static-line jumping. "You hang from the aircraft and then you go." He paused. "It's scary."

You hang from the aircraft and then you go. How, exactly, does one hang from an aircraft?

"From the strut," he said.

We walked over to a parked Cessna. The strut is the big slanted metal beam that shoots out at a diagonal from the aircraft body, under the wing, helping hold the wing to the fuselage. He demonstrated the procedure. He sat in the plane, next to its right-hand door. He climbed halfway out with his feet resting on the plane's right tire; then he stuck his arms out and grabbed the strut. By sliding his hands along the beam he worked himself out to its end. Had the plane been up in the air, his legs would have been dangling.

"You're able to hold on with just your arms?" I asked. "You don't get whooshed away?"

"You can hold on."

Well, that didn't sound too bad. Static-line training might not be the walk in the park I anticipated, but it didn't seem particularly scary. Gee, I thought - maybe Alexey is a bit of a wimp.

I was the old man of my skydiving class. Nine of us - eight lads in their teens and 20s, and me, in my 30s - gathered in a room at 10 o'clock on Saturday morning and appraised our teacher, a stocky blond fellow about my age with a confident air about him.

"Do any of you know my name?" he asked briskly.

"Sergeant Carter," shouted a parachute packer from the hallway outside the room. Indeed, our instructor had some of the manner of Gomer Pyle's gritty Marine drill instructor.

"Riiiiight," he chuckled. "But wrong. It's Dan Fairchild. I'm going to teach you what you need to know to make one safe static-line jump. We're going to go through the material together and I hope to have you up in an airplane late this afternoon. It's gonna be a piece of cake, fellas."

Fairchild handed each of us a 25-page photocopied booklet. It was dense with text and diagrams.

"OK, listen up," he said. "For the next 20 minutes just read the first four pages of the book. Do not go further until I tell you to." He didn't want us to get confused, or scared too early.

We read in the booklet for 20 minutes about how to hit the ground properly. Beginners need to keep their knees and feet together and their knees locked. (Experts can get fancy.) We watched a video about landing, and went outside to practice, jumping from three-foot risers.

As we trudged back into the classroom, Fairchild pointed up in the air. "There's a student," he said. "Way off course."

High, high in the sky was a parachute that seemed to be drifting aimlessly. I could barely make out a pair of legs hanging below it - they looked terribly vulnerable, dangling there 750 feet in the air. That poor soul was utterly, appallingly alone. I said to a classmate, "That's us in a few hours." I injected a lot of bravado into my voice, a sort of bellowing tone that I'm prone to when I'm getting nervous.

Despite the sudden chill in my heart, I still felt OK about my ability to do the jump. But then, at about 3 p.m., we began studying the last segment of the day, Emergency Procedures. Here I learned in detail about things that can go wrong with even a simple static-line jump.

It's rare for things to go wrong, and tried-and-true methods exist for dealing with things that do go wrong, but the whole thing suddenly seemed weird and complicated and not worth the money the magazine was paying me. Your parachute lines can get twisted. One, or both, of your canopy ends can collapse. Your lines can get twisted and your canopy ends can collapse at the same time. Your parachute can emerge from its pack looking like a squishy bag of garbage rather than a large security blanket.

If one of these things happens, you have 15 seconds to decide if you've got a "good parachute" or a "bad parachute that can't be landed safely." If you decide the latter, you are abruptly immersed in a life-or-death moment, easily the most dangerous moment of your life up to then, including the time when you were 18 and jumped off that cliff into the St. Croix River in Wisconsin. You've got to cut loose your main parachute (the best definition of "counter-intuitive" I've heard), pull the reserve ripcord ("the moment of truth," Alexey had said), and pray.

When you do a tandem jump, such as the one I had done on Thursday, someone else, an expert, is doing all the work, making all the decisions; as a result, a tandem jump is maybe a "2" on the 1-to-10 fear scale. This static-line thing felt like an "8" or "9."

Objectively speaking there weren't all that many things that could go wrong, but by 3:30 I had the exact same feeling in the pit of my stomach that I got at the age of 7 when I first studied, close-up, the deep end of the Murray High School swimming pool in St. Paul, Minnesota. I needed five full years to learn to swim well (a fact that causes my face to redden to this day); I was now thinking I would need more than a day to learn how to jump alone.

Everybody else in the class was on their feet, ready to go. Several students looked moderately stricken, but they were going to do it, apparently. I just couldn't do it. I raised my hand. I told Fairchild that I wanted to come back tomorrow and go through the class again.

"There's no class tomorrow," Fairchild said evenly.

"Ummm," I noted. Everybody was looking at me. Was I putting some extra bit of doubt in their minds? Would my hesitancy affect their performance? Hurt their safety? Couldn't I have just slunk off to the side and talked to Dan quietly, without this stupid announcement? These were not happy thoughts.

"You can come back tomorrow and read the book and look at the video again, and decide if you want to go," Fairchild said. "No problem."

Ahhhh. Thank you God. Thank you Dan. Not that I actually needed anyone's permission. There was no way I was getting on that goddamn plane that day. "Yeah. OK. I'll do that," I said, and I watched my classmates walk out. I hung around for another 45 minutes; they all made it back safely, and were suitably exultant.


An expert skydiver demonstrates one variety of bad parachute
for the camera. This brave person will cut loose the bad chute and land with a reserve.


*

My drive back to the motel was not pleasant. I found no solace in a fact I had learned that day - instruction at the Lodi DZ is ridiculously rushed. Ditto for the teaching at most DZs. In the U.S. military, rookie paratroopers attend two weeks of jump school before going anywhere near an airplane.

I glumly watched TV for a while and went to bed early. I dreamt of swimming pools and of an endless corridor in high school filled with horrors.

I woke up before sunrise pretty damn sure that I had to jump.

Some part of me wanted written reasons. I sat down and made a list. That was helpful. When I was done, I was sure I would go ahead with this thing; I needed that clarity of purpose. Here's what I came up with in that overheated few minutes:

1. Because it scares the bejabbers out of me. The philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson offers a thought on this topic: "Always do what you are afraid to do" - a useful credo for a guy who needed five frickin' years to learn to swim.

2. So I can finish this story for West. To quote Hunter S. Thompson, another philosopher and credo-giver, "I was after all, a professional journalist; so I had an obligation to cover the story, for good or ill."

3. In this lifetime I want to work through as much ancient twisted karma as possible, and achieve something akin to physical grace. It's a million-mile trip for me; here, today, maybe, is one modest step. (Odd - when I was 18, the journey seemed shorter, approximately the distance from the top of the river cliff to the water.)

One of the last things I did before I left the motel room was write out a last will and testament. "This," I thought, "is pure melodrama," but I completed the document, signed and dated it, sealed it in a motel envelope, and placed it in my backpack.

The morning was sunny and warm. While driving to the Parachute Center, and while sitting in the parking lot, I played my cassette of all-time favorite songs, listening to the Beatles, the Stones, Stevie Wonder, Jackie Wilson, the Band, and Creedence.

I headed for the main hangar, where I paged through the instruction book, contemplating photographs of what parachutes look like when they're bad parachutes.

Dan Fairchild walked up. "You ready?" he asked in a friendly, take-your-time manner.

"Yeah," I said.

Ten minutes later I was sitting in a Cessna on the runway.

The pilot was a young man named Joey, whom I had never seen before. I was wearing a full parachute rig, lots of buckles and Velcro. Dan hooked up my static line, shut the cabin door, backed away from the plane as it taxied, and gave me a thumbs-up, shouting, "Piece of cake!"

We took off. I looked at my watch. 10:30 a.m. We climbed.

We kept climbing. One really wants the plane to stop getting so high in the air but it doesn't.

It's very noisy, a small plane, and drafty. I checked my altimeter, the little gauge I wore on my chest that gave our altitude. We were at 2,800 feet. I would jump at 3,000. I was nicely scared and totally keyed up; I was riding a raft on a river of adrenaline.

We reached 3,000 feet a minute later. Joey reached over and opened the right-hand door. It's a shocking moment. One second you're enclosed and relatively safe, the next second you're not. The earth loomed.

"Feet out," Joey shouted. That was the first of three directives. I carefully placed my feet on a little ledge outside the cabin, at the bottom of the door frame. I was now halfway in and halfway out, in a sitting position, my hands gripping the door frame, probably with white knuckles, although I didn't check.

"Swing out," Joey shouted. From where I sat, I reached out, one hand at a time, and grabbed the wing strut. I moved my hands along it, to its end, several feet away; as I did this, I began to stand up. When my hands reached the strut's end, I assured myself of a good grip, and allowed my feet to fall away from the ledge and door frame. Until the very second I did it, some little part of me was sure I would get whooshed away, maybe tangling the static line and plummeting to a bounce, but no, my legs just lifted, gently.

I hung there for a moment. As soon as I looked back at Joey, he was gonna shout "Go!"

I looked back.

"Go!"

I went.

I had been trained to watch the aircraft as I dropped away and to hold myself in a "hard arch" position. I have no conscious memory of doing these things, but a videotape, shot from an automatic camera on the plane, shows that I did. I fell for about three seconds, counting them off, and then I felt a tug on my back - the static line yanking the chute out of my pack.

I got flipped around - I had no sense of where I was - this was "opening shock," the disorientation caused by the parachute as it opens and bounces you around a little bit. This lasted a couple of seconds. My instructions flooded back to me:

"Check canopy!"

I looked upward.

"Good canopy or bad canopy?"

Good canopy! I was going to live!

Now, suddenly, it was quiet, wonderfully quiet after the airplane racket and the rush of wind; the Cessna was already more than 100 yards away. I was alive. I had a good canopy. I felt marvelous despite being all alone 275 stories in the air. All of my fear had been centered on the question "Good canopy or bad canopy?" That question, among others, had been answered.

I breathed. I remembered to talk to myself out loud, as suggested by Dan: "Toggles. OK, toggles are down. Hold 'em for two seconds. Let 'em up. Good. Very good! Now - orient yourself, boy.

"Where are we? There's the freeway over there, and there's the airport. Great! You know where you are, dude.

"Face the target, m' man. Check your wind direction. Check your altimeter. Enjoy the ride!"

I guided my parachute by working the toggles, and by God, it went where it was aimed.

I was utterly alive and totally in the moment, and free of attachments to boot. Shoot - Buddhists spend lifetimes seeking such sweet consciousness.

At 500 feet I prepared to land. Planet Earth at that point started rushing up rather quickly. I made a slight boo-boo at the very end of my ride, doing something with the toggles at 10 feet that I should have done at 5 feet, which made me come thudding to the ground a bit quicker than I wanted. But my first lesson had been how to land, and I remembered.

My flight had taken five minutes. So fast; so fine.

I sat for a moment on the ground. Mother Earth smells good and is stable - I never noticed that quite so intensely before.

I gathered up my parachute, tucked the tangled pile under my right arm, and started a hike of a couple hundred yards to the main hangar. I felt very cool - every coolness chemical in my body was firing. When Dan Fairchild spotted me from a distance and shouted, "How'd it go?", I had the presence of mind, and convenient memory lapse, to yell, "Piece of cake!"

The writer Jon Carroll once said that Levon Helm of the Band is the only drummer who can make you cry, and so he did for me as I headed home on Highway 99, he and the group performing "The Weight" with those mysterious words about somebody searching for something in the fog. Music had never sounded so sweet to me. My tears might have embarrassed me the day before; I might have worried about comments by people in passing cars; but now, on this amazingly beautiful Sunday morning, what other people might say didn't count for anything at all.

-The End-

Update, 2009:

Dan Fairchild was nearly killed in 1997 while blade-running, a sport that combines skydiving and slalom skiing. He is a paraplegic today, confined to a wheelchair, suffering from chronic pain. He still skydives. He also does welding and fabricating and is an advocate for disabled people. "I have had to slow down some," he says, "but I will not give up."

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A Short History of
Skydiving and Parachutes

By Bob Frost

"The parachute as we know it goes back to Italy in about the 1470's," writes historian Lynn White Jr. in the scholarly journal Technology and Culture. An "unknown engineer," White writes, made sketches during that period; these survive today in the British Museum.

Leonardo da Vinci produced parachute ideas a few years after this unknown engineer. But there's no consensus today about whether actual gear got built, or tried, during that period. According to White, "Late medieval and Renaissance engineers were often more interested in playing with an idea than in actually doing anything with it."

The first known parachute jump was conducted in France on December 26, 1783, by Louis-Sebastian Lenormand, who descended safely from an elm tree. He later did public demonstrations from buildings. And he coined the word "parachute." In his efforts, Lenormand used a fixed-canopy rig - that is, the device was open before he embarked.

A year later, Benjamin Franklin, America's emissary in France, speculated about the possibility of "sky soldiers." He was probably influenced by Lenormand's deed. Another 18th century pioneer was Andre-Jacques Garnerin of France.

Parachuting developed slowly. Thomas Baldwin invented the parachute harness in 1887 and Charles Broadwick (born John Murray) created the parachute container in the early 1900s. Gleb Kotelnikov made important contributions in the first decades of the 20th century.

In 1912 a brave, creative, and quite foolish soul named Franz Reichelt died from jumping off the Eiffel Tower while testing a chute of unusual (and flawed) design. The event was filmed. The long pause before the leap: heart-wrenching.

The use of parachutes in World War I was mostly confined to balloonists who used them in emergencies. Airplane pilots did not parachute from damaged planes during the war, according to several sources - aviators were instructed to try to land their craft rather than bail out - but more research needs to be done to confirm this.

The U.S. Army made plans during the First World War for a big parachute drop behind German lines in the spring of 1919. This concept was shelved when the war ended in November of '18. The plan did not advance far enough for U.S. soldiers to be trained for the drop.

Leslie (Sky High) Irvin made one of the first deliberate, pre-meditated free-fall parachute jumps in 1919 at McCook Field near Dayton, Ohio - i.e., he was among the first (some sources say he was the first) to jump using a chute on his back, rather than a chute stored in a canister attached to the airplane or a pre-opened device such as Lenormand's in 1783.

Parachuting took a large step forward in the early 1930s when the Soviet Union began developing paratroopers, the first such armed force in history. The exact date when the Red Army began working in this realm is not known with certainty, although it's been established that a Soviet delegation to the U.S. bought a number of parachutes in 1931.

Germany latched onto the paratroop concept after observing Soviet military exercises in the '30s. (German military planners were receptive to new ideas between the world wars; see also the tank.) Hitler, who came to power in 1933, used paratroops for policing, and also poured money into his military airborne capability, establishing the Fallschirmjager, a paratroop squadron, in 1936. This force became the Seventh Air Division, one of the most formidable units in the history of warfare, part of the German Air Force. Gen. Kurt Student was a key leader. The German Army also had paratroops.

Meanwhile, civilian parachuting got a major dose of publicity in the U.S. in 1939 at the World's Fair in New York. One of the fair's stellar attractions was a ride called the Parachute Jump, 262 feet tall, sponsored by the LifeSaver Co., with riders being belted into seats, hoisted up, and carried to the ground by parachute. The structure, designed by James H. Strong, was originally intended for use by the U.S. military; Strong was inspired by Soviet practice towers. The ride moved to Coney Island in Brooklyn in 1941 and stayed in business until the 1960s. It still stands today, an official historic landmark (non-working; photo below).

item13
The Parachute Jump at Coney Island,
some 26 stories tall.


In May, 1941, the German Seventh Air Division - 16,000 men - dropped onto the Mediterranean island of Crete in history's first large-scale parachute attack. (The Germans made small paratroop attacks in 1940.) They had been told to expect only modest resistance, but this intelligence was inaccurate; they suffered massive casualties, with many men shot while in the air. The battle "effectively destroyed one of the finest fighting formations in Hitler's army," writes journalist and historian John Keegan, and Hitler became leery of airborne attacks. Winston Churchill, always willing to acknowledge bravery, no matter whose, writes of the Battle of Crete, "The flower of German manhood was expressed in these valiant, highly trained, and completely devoted Nazi parachute troops." Germany eventually took Crete. The decimated Seventh Air Division was re-organized in 1943 as the First Air Division; the First, writes Churchill, comprised "probably the toughest fighters in all their Army." (See the film "The Eagle Has Landed" [1976] for a sense of the elan of German paratroopers.) By the way, Germany came horrifyingly close to winning the war in the spring of 1940 and might have done so if it had used parachutists to attack Britain. Historian John Lukacs writes, "The Germans could have invaded England before, during or immediately after Dunkirk. Parachutists could have secured landing grounds into which German troops could have been poured (by plane), even without the ferrying across of soldiers by the small German navy. This would have been possible because of the unorganized, unequipped, mangled and weak state of the British army at that time....If the Germans had secured a landing area, they would have conquered England....Had Hitler invaded England successfully he would have won the war. And that was within the Germans' capacity to do."

item17
German paratroopers on Crete.


In the wake of German parachute landings in 1940 and '41, the Allies accelerated paratroop development. Gen. William (Bill) Lee was a central figure in this endeavor and would become known as the "Father of the U.S. Airborne." Lt. William (Bill) Ryder was the first American paratrooper. The first major U.S. airborne attack came in November, 1942, in North Africa. In June, 1944, on D-Day, paratroopers from the U.S., Great Britain, Canada, and France landed in Normandy; American troops reportedly yelled "Bill Lee!" as they jumped. ("Geronimo!" was the more common exit yell at other times during the war.)

The U.S. Marines had superb parachute units during World War II but got out of that line of work after 1945. A good book on the entire U.S. paratroop effort during the war is "Geronimo! American Paratroopers in World War II" by William B. Breuer (1989).

Parachuting plays a major part in the D-Day movie "The Longest Day" (1962). The film is fact-based, deriving from the reportage of Cornelius Ryan. John Wayne portrays paratrooper Lt. Col. Benjamin H. "Vandy" Vandervoort of the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division. Wayne learns of Gen. Eisenhower's "go" command while waiting amidst 40-foot-long parachute packing tables; upon hearing the news, he flings aside his coffee cup in excitement and heads out. Later, after breaking his ankle in the drop, he examines a map and sputters angrily, "Five miles from our drop zone - five miles!" Also in the film, in perhaps its most memorable sequence, Red Buttons, playing Pvt. John M. Steele of the 82nd, hangs from a church steeple by his parachute lines, watching, horrified, as his compatriots are killed. Also, the movie depicts Allied use of "paradummies," an effort to fool the enemy and make the invasion seem larger than it was. And the film includes Richard Burton describing the fate of a comrade - a great actor delivering a simple, eloquent, sad line: "His parachute didn't open."

After World War II, skydiving (i.e., a deliberate free fall of some seconds from an airplane, followed by opening of the chute) developed as a sport in several countries, propelled by ex-paratroopers. The U.S. Army adopted a new parachute rig in the 1950s and sold off equipment from the Second World War.

The U.S. Army Parachute Team formed in 1959 (the "Golden Knights," as they're nicknamed). One of the team's specialties is formation skydiving - the art of building formations or patterns in free fall. A video clip of the team is here. An article on formation skydiving is here.

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Life magazine, May 28, 1951.


On August 16, 1960, in a Cold War-driven experiment, history's highest skydive/parachute jump was made by Capt. Joseph Kittinger, 32, a U.S. Air Force test pilot. (Photos below.) Kittinger leaped from a small gondola supported by a large helium balloon, 102,800 feet (more than 19 miles) over the New Mexico desert, in the near-vacuum of the stratosphere. He did a free fall of four minutes and 36 seconds, reaching a speed of 614 miles per hour (some sources inaccurately say 714 mph). He landed 13 minutes and 45 seconds after departing the gondola. During the jump, pressurization failed in his right glove, and his hand swelled to double its normal size; if pressurization had failed in his helmet, his head would have exploded. His three-stage parachute was designed by Francis Beaupre of the Aerospace Medical Division of the Wright Air Development Center in Ohio.

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Two photographs of Joseph Kittinger's epic skydive in 1960.
The photos were shot by automatic camera.


The glamour of World War II paratrooping affected a great many people for years. For example, in 1960, at a party in Washington D.C., guests played a parlor game: "If you could do it all over, what would you be?" The answer of Robert Kennedy: "A paratrooper." Kennedy was a fervent admirer of Gen. Maxwell D. Taylor, a paratrooper during the war.

Skydiving gained wide exposure in America in 1961-63 with the TV show "Ripcord," a weekly syndicated series. Episodes began with a narrator declaring, "This is the most danger-packed show on television." The general vibe of the program was, "Only daredevils do this."

Parachuting has been an aspect of many movies and TV shows including "Parachute Jumper" (1933), "The Bride Came C.O.D." (1941), "The Bridge on the River Kwai" (1957), "Lord of the Flies" (1963), "Where Eagles Dare" (1968), "The Gypsy Moths" (1969), "The Spy Who Loved Me" (1976) and other James Bond films, "Fandango" (1985), "Hope and Glory" (1987), "Point Break" (1991), "Honeymoon in Vegas" (1992), "Terminal Velocity" (1994), "Drop Zone" (1994), and TV's "24" (2001-2010). A movie list that appears to be fairly close to complete can be found here.

In February, 1966, parachuting was mentioned in a song that hit number one on the Billboard pop and country charts - "The Ballad of the Green Berets" by Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler of the U.S. Army Special Forces: "Fighting soldiers from the sky/Fearless men who jump and die."

In May, 1966, a New Jersey man named Nick Piantanida was killed trying to break Joseph Kittinger's altitude record. His face mask depressurized at 57,000 feet.

The technology of skydiving advanced dramatically in the 1960s and '70s. The first parachute built specifically for sport jumping hit the market in 1964; a few years later an efficient "single point release" system for canopies became popular.

BASE jumping took embryonic form in the 1960s, wherein skydivers jump from fixed objects - buildings, antennas, spans (i.e., bridges), and earth (i.e., cliffs), with the acronym BASE formed from the first letters of those words. A key moment for the activity occurred in 1978 with jumps at Yosemite National Park in California - this event was the birth of modern BASE jumping, according to several sources, because it was done as a repeatable recreational activity, with appropriate gear, in contrast to earlier such jumps, which were more in the nature of one-time stunts. Not that regular BASE jumping is anywhere close to safe; it has zero margin for error. Writing in 2011, journalist James Vlahos describes the activity as "the death-wish variant of skydiving that involves launching from buildings and bridges with only seconds - and no second chances - to safely deploy a parachute."

Skydiving entered the American mainstream in 1968 when Johnny Carson made a jump in California and showed film of the event on the Tonight Show, causing any number of viewers to sit up in bed and say, "If Johnny can do it, I can do it!" Subsequently, Carson had skydivers as guests on his show several times.

The most famous non-military skydive of modern times was made by airplane hijacker D.B. Cooper in November, 1971; he leaped into the night out of a 727 jet in the Pacific Northwest with $200,000 in ransom. He was never caught. Cooper's parachute was supplied to him by authorities at Seattle-Tacoma Airport. He rejected the U.S. military chutes that he was initially offered - he insisted upon, and got, civilian gear. It's not known why he was so scornful of military rigs.

The first properly-designed tandem parachute was introduced in 1983. (In 1977 a rudimentary two-people-using-one-parachute jump occurred in Florida.) Ex-President George H.W. Bush made a famous tandem jump in 1997. Tandem jumping has been a financial godsend for many drop zones including the Parachute Center in Lodi (see main story).

In 2000, British skydiver Adrian Nicholas built a replica of Leonardo da Vinci's 15th century parachute, using canvas, rope, and wood, assisted by his friend Katarina Ollikainen and advised by Oxford scholar Martin Kemp. On June 26, 2000, Nicholas jumped with the rig from a hot-air ballon over South Africa, rode it for about five minutes, cut it away, and landed with a modern chute. The replica performed flawlessly. Nicholas went on to star in the remarkable skydiving film "Adrenalin Rush: The Science of Risk" (2002). He predicted, "I'll die skydiving," and so he did, in 2005 at age 43.

World records in parachuting/skydiving are kept by the World Air Sports Federation (formal name: the Federation Aeronautique Internationale [FAI]). The FAI's parachuting sanctioning group is the International Parachuting Commission (IPC). The FAI is based in Switzerland; its Website is here.

-The End-

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